A great crime show has a twisted and charming reliability: Who doesn't love the intrigue of a heinous fictional crime, with the promise that it will be neatly resolved within an hour?
The best crime shows add a little more nuance.
The Wire isn't a series about choosing sides — jaded lawmen vs. strategic gangsters — but about seeing how everyone's soul is compromised in the rat race toward a phony American dream. HBO's more recent follows a similar pattern to its predecessors: There isn't just one experience when it comes to cops and crime — perspectives vary drastically based on where you are and what you look like. The Night Of
The real criminal justice system seems closer to a horror-thriller these days, so the shows ahead might even be a little inspiring, too. In these series, dutiful, hardworking people try to make an inherently biased system work for everyone. The charm of all 450-plus episodes of
Law & Order comes from its dependable formula. These are good cops working toward a fair conviction. That's not always true in real life.
(2008-2013) Breaking Bad
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn
This is a crime show, only it's on the side of the criminal. Watch as Walter White evolves from timid chemistry teacher with terminal cancer to a kingpin of the meth trade.
Breaking Bad is widely known as the greatest TV show of all time, you don't need us to tell you to watch it. You already know you should watch it. More
Dexter(2002 - 2012)
Starring: Michael C Hall, Jennifer Carpenter
When this show about a do-gooder serial killer premiered on Showtime, it toppled conventions on what — and who — a protagonist should be. Dexter’s adopted father Harry recognized his son would be unable to rise above his insatiable thirst for, well, murder. Harry, a police officer, knew just how a criminal could get around the cops. As a gift from father to son, Harry teaches Dexter how to kill without getting caught, and how to choose victims who are already guilty of other crimes.
The twist? In addition to being a murderer himself, Dexter is an indispensable Forensics Expert of the Miami police department. Throughout its eight seasons, Dexter redefined what a crime show was, and who a criminal is.
Photo: Courtesy of Showtime More
Quantico (2016 - )
The show that sent Priyanka Chopra to America saw major success after the first season, which aired just last year. Chopra plays Alex Parrish, an FBI agent who becomes the prime suspect in a terrorist attack on Grand Central. After successfully clearing her name, Alex begins the second season of the series, which is currently airing on ABC, as a newly hired CIA operative.
Photo: Courtesy of ABC. More
(2010 - ) Sherlock Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman
Benedict Cumberbatch is the emotionless detective Sherlock Holmes in this BBC adaptation of the character. What makes this iteration rise above all others —
Luther excluded — is Cumberbatch's robotic performance as our socially inept hero. His chemistry with straight man Watson, played by Martin Freeman, keeps us interested. At face value, Sherlock is a campy procedural, but beneath the tongues in cheeks, the show is an elegant depiction of reluctant male friendship. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock. More
(2016 - Present) Search Party Starring: Alia Shawkat, John Early, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner
Though it be but young,
Search Party is powerful. The genre-bending show combines quirky New York comedy with crime procedural, and it wins at both. Four young Brooklyn folk (think characters from HBO's Girls) become entangled in a crime when a friend from college disappears without a trace. Suddenly, they have to grapple with real life and — gasp! — something other than themselves. Search Party will please your crime show cravings without tasting stale. Photo: Courtesy of CBS. More
(2005 - ) Bones Starring: David Boreanaz, Emily Deschanel, T.J. Thyne, Michaela Conlin, Tamara Taylor
Say what you will about Fox's will-they-or-won't-they procedural —
Bones is just plain addictive. The series follows a forensic anthropologist, Dr. "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel), and FBI agent Booth (David Boreanaz) as they solve crimes and try not to fall in love. The banter between the two recalls our faves Scully and Mulder of the X-Files. After 12 seasons, one wonders if the show is living on borrowed time, but the fact remains that the show is prime crime television. There's rotting corpses, scientific jargon, and sexual tension. What more can you ask from a crime show? Photo: 20th Century Fox Television/REX/Shutterstock More Read More
(2010 - 2014) Boardwalk Empire Starring: Steve Buscemi, Michael K. Williams, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Vincent Piazza, Jack Huston, Michael Pitt
"You can't be half a gangster," this Martin Scorsese-produced HBO show proclaimed in its third season. That's the biggest and best theme of the show, which follows Atlantic City bootlegger Enoch "Nucky" Thompson. He tries being half a gangster and half a politician, but it never works out.
The show frequently sputters, and is sometimes slow. But visually it's still pretty astonishing. If you're not in it for the long haul, stream the second season, when Michael Pitt puts in good work.
(2013 - Present) Broadchurch Starring: David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Jodie Whittaker
This British import stars David Tennant of
Jessica Jones and Dr. Who fame and Olivia Colman as detectives in the small town of Dorset, UK. The first season (or series, if you will excuse the British-ism), begins when the body of an 11-year-old boy appears on a nearby beach. The following episodes detail the fallout from the death, which, incidentally, looks an awful lot like murder. Broadchurch has the ingredients of a been-there-done-that procedural, but the setting, in combination with superb performances from the two leads, makes for a haunting drama that lasts far beyond your average crime show.
A warning for beginners: the accents in this show are pretty thick, so you may want to watch with subtitles.
(2015 - Present) Narcos Starring: Wagner Moura, Pedro Pascal, Boyd Holbrook, Paulina Gaitán
This gritty and addictive Netflix drama isn't for the faint of heart. The show follows Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, who's feeling the pinch of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Even though we know how this ends — the "King of Cocaine" was eventually shot and killed by the Columbian National Police in 1993 — the series is exciting and bloody.
(2010-2016) Luther Starring: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson
DCI John Luther is a brilliant but tormented British police detective. His dedication to catching killers borders on an obsession that tends to consume him. For much of the series he chases the beautiful but cunning serial killer Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson).
The searing crime drama has been called Elba's best work since
The Wire. He won a Golden Globe for the show in 2012. More
(2013-2016) The Fall Starring: Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan
Jamie Dornan is, objectively, an attractive man. The
Fifty Shades of Grey franchise does not make good on his appeal. The Fall, however, does.
But Gillian Anderson is The Fall's true star. As high ranking detective Stella Gibson, Anderson is hot on the trail of a serial killer targeting white, brunette women. That serial killer is — shocker — Dornan's character. These two face off in this slow burning BBC series.
Photo: Courtesy of BBC. More
(2011-2014) The Killing Starring: Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman
Detectives Sarah Linden (Enos) and Stephen Holder (Kinnaman) star in this moody, intense drama about Seattle crime. The duo occasionally butt heads — she's stern, he's unfettered — but they have to work together to solve four seasons worth of grisly murders.
The Killing 's greatness was spectacular, but ultimately uneven: "Every year, fans rolled that rock up the hill of fine acting, great dialogue and stunning visuals," wrote Joel Keller for Indiewire, "only to be crushed as it rolled back down, thanks to the end of the season making no sense, or executed so poorly that you found yourself yelling at the screen." Photo: Courtesy of AMC. More
(2014-Present) True Detective Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan
Ok, we know the second season of this HBO show was flaming hot garbage fire. But the
first season of — for all of the "time is a flat circle" goofiness — was pretty compelling. True Detective
True Detective 's central crime unfolded beautifully, with bold camera work and precise commentary on religion, politics, and the American south. A pair of grizzled Louisiana detectives tried to track down the man who murdered a prostitute in two timelines. The past and present converged to make for a really great whodunit.
That first season also did right by its women:
At Grantland, Molly Lambert made a good case this. "But I don’t think the women on True Detective are mere virgins and whores. Far from it. I think that it’s through them we are made to see the very obvious problems with Marty’s view of women as virgins and whores," she wrote. "The show is also equally weighted toward Rust’s POV, which questions much of that worldview." Photo: Courtesy of HBO. More
Cold Case (2003-2010) Starring: Kathryn Morris, Danny Pino, John Finn
Vintage unsolved mysteries got a second look in this CBS series. Detective Lilly Rush was an expert at closing cases whose files were weathered with decades of age and buried evidence.
Cold Case crew took on old missing persons cases and unsolved murders. They always seemed like the underdog against aging witnesses, and the limitations of technology when the cases were first opened. That, plus Detective Rush's struggle as her squad's only woman investigator, made this a compelling crime drama. Photo: Courtesy of CBS. More
Law & Order: SVU(1999-Present) Starring: Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni, Ice-T, Richard Belzer, B.D. Wong
SVU is the best of the franchise, and the one readily available on Netflix. Olivia Benson and Elliott Stabler were the most reliable partners, a perfect balance of friendship, cynicism, truth, and toughness. All the conventions of the original series were carried over into this spin-off, which dealt primarily with sex crimes. To the credit of the producers, the show confronted sex shaming and victim-blaming for women other shows considered high risk targets.
SVU is known for timely takes on the news. Recent episodes have taken on GamerGate, Robert Durst, and sexual assault on college campuses. Photo: Courtesy of NBC. More
(1990-2010) Law & Order Starring: Sam Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jerry Orbach, Anthony Anderson
Law & Order exemplifies the franchise's signature mix of compelling, timely cases and interesting cops and attorneys. Over 20 years and 450 episodes, the show became a benchmark for great serialized crime dramas.
In its final seasons,
Law & Order was up against cable heavyweights like Lost and 24. It's better than both, wrote Mike Hale for at the time of the show's cancellation, and will likely age better, too: "Through 20 seasons, the message of The New York Times Law & Order was always about living to fight another day." Photo: Courtesy of NBC. More
(2002-2008) The Wire Starring: Wendell Pierce, Michael Kenneth Williams, Sonja Sohn
No show deals with the intersection of crime, the judicial system, race, power, and the cynicism that pervades each as well as
The Wire. The show launched a host of impressively textured careers — including those of Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, Michael K. Williams, and Dominic West — and established creator and showrunner David Simon as one of the smartest and most influential figures in TV. The Wire shines because of its moral ambiguity: In a city beset by inequality, the lines between the good and bad guys aren't easy to draw. Photo: Courtesy of HBO. More
(2009-2013) Southland Starring: Regina King, Ben McKenzie, Michael Cudlitz
Southland 's vision of the LAPD is dark and conflicted. The character-driven drama sees LA crime on a granular level, through the eyes of the detectives who patrol the streets daily. The show's run was short, but it presented a grittier take on police life on a major network. Also, who wouldn't support a show that kept The O.C.'s Ben McKenzie employed? Photo: Courtesy of TNT. More
(2014-Present) How to Get Away With Murder Starring: Viola Davis, Liza Weil, Alfred Enoch, Matt McGorry
Shonda Rhimes' reign continues with
HTGAWM, anchored by Viola Davis. The show's characters are always escaping their own murder charges or defending clients against a conviction, but its standout strength is the compelling character of Annalise Keating (Davis). "I wanted to play a fully realized, dark-skinned woman, and just doing that alone could be revolutionary," Davis told . The show's realistic, assertive look at sexuality and power has earned it high praise. The New York Times Photo: Courtesy of ABC. More
(2005-2012) The Closer Starring: Kyra Sedgwick, J.K. Simmons
Kyra Sedgwick plays Brenda Johnson, an Atlanta police detective with a particular talent: getting confessions. Johnson is kind of an oddball character to her peers — her bright, confident outfits stick out in a sea of police blue and gray — but she is a titan interrogator. "Women are not successful because they act like men...femininity is a power," executive producer James Duff
told at the time of the show's end. "It is not a weakness or something that needs to be compensated for. So I was very concentrated on making sure that Brenda remained a woman in this world." The Christian Science Monitor Photo: Courtesy of TNT. More
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